What’s Good for You
Last week my sweetheart and I decided to skip cooking and take in from our favorite “Burrito Lady” in town. The Burrito Lady offers a refreshing contrast to the overpriced, farm-to-table ad nauseum, locally sourced blah de blah menus of our Berkshire town. Her offerings are satisfying in only the way a giant stuffed burrito can be, and affordable. If you want it your way, down to the last jalapeño, you must be there in person to give her your specs. Usually this is my honey’s task. I send him out in trust; he knows I always want The Works, minus the spicy stuff. This time we went together, as we were picking up two extra burritos for some friends.
The Burrito Lady occupies a narrow, inconspicuous space beneath the only low-rent apartments in our increasingly wealthy town. If her glass door’s open, she’s in business. There’s very little room to stand, just a few soft drink cases abutted by a long and tall counter, where her slender kitchen is laid out on the other side. After making our selections, we had some time while we awaited the meticulous construction of our four burritos. I was happy to have the opportunity to practice my almost-fluent Spanish with this small industrious woman behind the unusually tall counter. She seemed pleased that I could converse with her in this way, not that she needed it to understand me.
As she crafted the first spicy chicken burrito, we spoke to her about her life, skipping back and forth between Spanish and English when I couldn’t recall the word in one language or the other. I appreciated having just another glimmer of connection, a few more feelings and expressions to communicate with. There’s an ease that settles into a person when they’re able to express in their native tongue. Spanish is not my mother language, yet I took to it easily, and admittedly, with some guilt at choosing it over Italian back in high school. Like many second and third generation Italians, I was surrounded by the phrases and expressions of my grandparents, but was not encouraged to learn more, a vestige of the internal and external push for assimilation. My Grandfather, Gennaro, would tell how he came to Brooklyn via Ellis Island when he was six, and promptly began calling himself Gerry, so that he might sound a bit more American.
With the lines of communication open, I uncovered that the Burrito Lady had been living here in the states for nearly thirty years. When I asked where she was from she said confidently, “Mexico.”
Despite having limited knowledge of the detailed geography of that country, I pressed her further, “Where?”
Again she adamantly replied, with an affirmative head nod, “Mexico. The city.” People from that place referred to it much in the same way we native Long Islanders referred to Manhattan as “the city.” I could sense the pride and connection to place in her tone in the same way I think and feel about New York (even as a five year Massachusetts resident). The city proper has never been my home but I know that my nearest ancestors got their start there, in Brooklyn, and I have lived with that knowing for all my life.
Naturally, the banter shifted to food. There was something about this petite, robust woman that reminded me of my mother. We wanted to know if she prepared more traditional dishes for herself, since surely she’s not eating burritos all day. At this inquiry, she perked up and described a soup she had simmering in the back, something muy traditionale, and did we want to try it? She promptly put out a little plastic cup, usually reserved for side orders of sour cream or guacamole, filled with a delicious-smelling, thin, red soup with a bit of oil skimming the surface and a big morsel of something whitish resting inside. Some distant knowledge came back to me as she motioned to a sign in her window: menudo. This was a traditional Mexican soup, she explained, as I vaguely recalled from eleventh grade Spanish class.
It took me a moment to recognize the floating tidbit as a hunk of tripe. I hid a wince, recalling the familiar smell wafting through the house when I was a child. They didn’t make it often, my mother and grandmother. I can see the wide pot on the stove, my small grandmother leaning against the counter with a button-up kitchen apron and a wooden spoon (the former, we took to calling shmatas, thanks to our secular Jewish friends and cross-cultural lingual appropriation). Grandma Lucy would pull the cow’s stomach lining up out of the pot to show me, maybe to freak me out.
“Look, isn’t it beautiful?”
In a way, I could see it, despite my recoiling in disgust. Stretched out, the tripe exhibited a net-like effect, its rubbery pliability maintaining the diamond-shaped cross hatching as it dangled above the pot. They’d serve it with red sauce, thick and hearty. I never ate it. Knowing what it was, I refused.
“It’s a delicacy,” my grandmother would insist. This never swayed me.
Of course there were other frugal specialties that passed through the kitchen of my youth, all of which I either refused, or was otherwise tricked into eating. I recall biting into a particularly soft piece of breaded “chicken,” only to uncover that my mother had given me cow’s tongue that night for dinner. As it goes with small people and fixed ideas, I spat it out and would not budge beyond that last bite. Had I remained unaware, I probably would’ve gobbled up the whole thing. In addition to the strange animal parts spurned, from the ages of five to twenty-five, I famously (and to my deep regret) refused to eat any form of seafood. When I think of the twenty years I missed out on all the Christmas eve fish cakes prepared with baccala and my mother’s famous fish salad bejeweled with sparkling morsels of purple tentacles, chunks of conch, and blushing shrimp, I can only shake my head and forgive the ignorance of my youth. Grandma Lucy would shake her head too, as my mother would prepare my pasta with butter and parmesan while the rest of the family enjoyed spicy marinara with stuffed calamari. They would reminisce of a time when I was nary a baby, that I would beg for the prized chicken heart in the soup, and eat morsels of calamari like it was candy. What had happened to this kid? The only exception I’d make (beyond the safety of meatloaf and chicken breast) were my mother’s veal cutlets, fried thin and crispy. The melt in your mouth crunch kept me blind to the fact that I was eating baby cow. Besides, animal advocacy was not the reason I was withholding on the fish and internal organs front. That stuff was just, well, gross.
Many years after my grandmother passed, we took my mom, begrudgingly, to the city to a renowned Italian restaurant. In general, we never ate “Italian” out of the house. Why would we, when we could make it better ourselves, was the sentiment. Never mind the schlep into the city. I managed to convince her to allow my brother to drive her in. My sister and I met them there. Once my mother saw the menu, she perked up and made her selection immediately. After servings of beautifully crafted arancini and a plate of whisper-thin prosciutto over a bed of arugula, the entrees arrived. In front of my mother was placed a shallow white casserole dish, filled to the brim with tomato sauce, delicately blanketing a perfectly prepared portion of tripe below.
As with most groups of people who cook and eat well, in my family, we relish in a well prepared dish. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother enjoy a meal more than that one. Here was something that she didn’t bother making for herself anymore, something that conjured the old ways of resourcefulness and skill at making anything taste good. And perhaps a remnant of her childhood. She was in heaven. I tried the sauce, but not the tripe.
So here we were, awaiting the last burrito, this little plastic cup on the counter awaiting some action. I knew that my sweetheart (with his mix of Jewish, Irish, and Creole heritage) was not aware of what rested below his nose. I knew that if he did know, he wouldn’t have touched it. All the while we conversed with the Burrito Lady, I kept my eye on it. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Here was an offering. Something rare and special and bueno had been proffered. Without a flinch, I scooped up the cup and gulped its contents down. I’d like to say I moaned in ecstasy. I did not. But I chewed that little morsel (because yes, it was very chewy), smiled, and honored the woman who had offered this gift. I could practically feel my grandmother laughing and nodding her head in approval. This kid finally knows what’s good for her.
Kristin Grippo is an educator, writer, and performer living and working in the Berkshires. She is proud to claim all four of her great-grandparents as Italian immigrants from Naples and Palermo. In recent years, Kristin has been exploring the Italian-American experience through personal memoir as well as honing her story-telling skills throughout the Berkshires, sharing personal and universal experiences via rampant honesty and humor.